Boss Hog’s scuzzy, guttural take on the blues has always suggested something that would crawl back to life, making Brood X, their first album in 17 years, less surprising than inevitable. Time has done little to dull the band’s dive-bar swagger and spastic groove-making, and has had no effect on the caustic pin-up posturing of lead singer Cristina Martinez.
Brood X is a curious marriage between Martinez’s vague, brooding, and mystical lyrics and bandmate and husband Jon Spencer’s lo-fi rock n’ roll, which sounds dreamt up on the spot in a dirty garage. Take the odd pairing of the riff behind “Black Eyes”—a greasy mix of grind organ, synths, and funk guitar, all giving way to a mid-song drum break—with its introspective chorus: “How does it feel to feel good?” Martinez sings snakily, while the song’s tongue-wagging chug tries to break her out of a trance.
This arthouse junk-rock approach has always been core to Boss Hog, and in the past has taken the form of Martinez performing concerts nude and using explicit photography in the band’s visual materials. On Brood X she’s less outwardly shocking than she is unfeeling and coy, as if she’s spent nearly two decades figuring out how to strike a nerve by saying as little as possible as coldly as possible—a finessed detachment that brings to mind Lana Del Rey’s sense of macabre, or the Plastic Ono Band’s robotic dance-rock.
“Sunday Routine” is the clearest example of this: Martinez assumes an ethereal, overdone vibrato reminiscent of Grace Slick to narrate the sensational boredom that’s overtaken her home life, while the rhythm section lolls into a Wall of Sound beat and a lone guitar noodles along. The band sounds woozy and carefree, and Martinez like she hasn’t known those sensations for years. “Rodeo Chica” is a barnstorming Spencer sendup—high-octane funk, bravado nonsense for lyrics (something about crackerjack Romeos and diamond rings), a call-and-response section between husband and wife—and yet Martinez can’t quite let loose. “What’s wrong, baby?” Spencer asks in his best aw-shucks mode. “Everything,” she replies.
Some of Brood X suffers from this dispassion; certainly the Black Sabbath-esque “Billy,” the handclapping “Formula X,” and the audio joyride “Signal” could use a little more charisma. On these songs and in other moments, the album seems right on the edge of bursting into Spencer’s blues revivalism and showmanship, but an undercurrent of torment doesn’t quite allow it.
Still, this same darkness fuels Brood X’s most curious and ruminative moments, from the flute-backed mantras of “Ground Control” (“Admission is free/This is the cost of privilege”) to the double entendre cutting through the scuzzy, helicopter guitars of “Shh Shh Shh” (“Let me tell you how I came!”). On “17,” the album’s closing track, Boss Hog builds a derelict spaghetti-western sound collage out of carnival organ, tape-deck malfunctions, and speaker fuzz. “I was swallowed by the noise/I was just 17,” sings Martinez, before being overtaken by an orchestra of cicadas. The fade of her eerie vocals alongside hypnotic acoustic guitar is the sound of Boss Hog assuming its niche, as a band not singing its way out of the blues, but delving more deeply into them.